I believe there's one experience in mountaineering that outshines the rest. This moment is better than the summit. It's better than the post-climb parking lot party. (Although that’s always amazing!) It's better than the first rays of sun on your face after a cold alpine start. It's even better than taking off your mountaineering boots off. There is one moment, experienced in the course of every successful mountaineering expedition, that eclipses the rest.
We were nearing the top of the Pearly Gates on a spring climb of Wy'East on Mt. Hood when I felt it. Our team hit this section an hour after sunrise and we were intensely focused on every step. The Pearly Gates are a several hundred foot narrow chute of snow and ice that must be ascended to reach the summit plateau. A fall here could have serious consequences for the members of our team and those ascending below us.
The climbing was committed but the steps solid as we flowed through the route. Step. Step. Swing. Step. Step. Swing. Pay attention. Keep it tight. We're almost there. I do not recall the words that were spoken in that moment, but I will always remember the beaming smiles on the faces of my teammates. We could see the summit right above us. We were moments away. We knew we had it.
This magical moment happens when you know you are going to reach your objective. You suddenly know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you are moments away from the summit. The hard uphill ascent is over. The obstacles are behind you. The self-doubt is over. You have the skills you needed. There is nothing left to do but to take those final steps to the top.
This is what I climb for. This is the magical emotional experience that I chase. This is the high I am seeking. Everything else falls away, for a few short moments, except the joy of simply being there. Nothing else matters but the gentle pull of the rope, the snow beneath my feet, and the vista spread out before me. The mountain has once again allowed us safe passage to the top.
This moment happens in the mountains and in everyday life. It’s the moment when you know you're going to get the job offer. The feeling you get when you've met the right person. It’s the sight of the perfect weather forecast. It's seeing your partner from across the room after a long time away. You're not quite there yet, but you know you will be soon. And you know it's going to be great.
You'll know it when it happens. There may be a brief pause. There might be an exclamation of joy. You've made it through. But, first, focus on enjoying these last few moments in between. Feel the sun on your face. Breathe deep of the crisp mountain air. Revel in the anticipation. The summit is waiting but this, right now, this is everything. This is the best moment in mountaineering.